The seating chart said it all.
It was the Sunday before the Sunday before the All-Star Game, and the Washington Nationals were holding a news conference. On a podium deep within the bowels of Nationals Park, the three players who were voted into the Midsummer Classic sat behind a long table and fielded questions from reporters.
On the right was Max Scherzer, the two-time defending Cy Young winner whose dominant first half makes him a favorite to be the starting pitcher for the National League in front of his hometown fans. On the left was Sean Doolittle, the bearded southpaw who hasn't walked anybody in three months and has been as good as any closer in the game. In between Scherzer and Doolittle, in the chair that was literally the center of attention, sat Bryce Harper.
Given the year that Harper is having so far, he had no earthly business being the man in the middle. Relative to Scherzer and Doolittle, he is Washington's least deserving All-Star, and it's not particularly close. Yet there he sat, the clear focal point in a roomful of lenses and microphones and eyeballs. This was, after all, supposed to be Bryce Harper's All-Star Game.
Ever since 2015, a season that started with commissioner Rob Manfred announcing that Washington would host the 2018 festivities and ended with Harper being named the youngest unanimous MVP ever, this was meant to be his All-Star Game. In the middle of that MVP campaign, Harper announced that he would abstain from the Home Run Derby until the Midsummer Classic descended on the District, which only served to make the 2018 ASG seem even more like his baby. The fact that the former top overall draft pick is poised to become a free agent after this season at the tender age of 26 didn't hurt, either. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Bryce Harper Summer Invitational. Actually, two things:
1. Manny Machado and his Traveling Trade Circus crashed the party.
2. The host with the most stopped playing like it.
Maybe it's the scrutiny that comes with being one of the most anticipated free agents in MLB history. Maybe it's the pressure of having the All-Star Game in your backyard and proving that you deserve to be there. Maybe it's the burden of carrying an underachieving offense that has spent large chunks of time without guys named Murphy and Eaton and Rendon and Zimmerman and Kendrick. Whatever the reason, Harper has frequently looked like a guy who's trying to do too much.
"He's trying to hit 9,000 home runs, and it's costing him," one American League scout said. "He's making himself look like an ass."
He's also making himself a lot of outs. Even though averages across the league are down thanks to a variety of reasons (homer-happy hitters, shift-happy defenses, velo-happy hurlers), Harper's average has plummeted to unforeseeable depths. At the time the All-Star results were announced Sunday, his .218 average ranked 78th out of 81 qualified National Leaguers. He led the National League in walks and was third in homers, but he was on pace for 164 strikeouts, a number that would shatter his previous career high. It was a startling downturn for a superstar who hit .319 last year, before an August knee injury derailed an outstanding season that had thrust him firmly into the MVP conversation again. Unlike in 2016, when reports of a lingering shoulder issue surfaced and perhaps helped explain why he struggled to repeat his historic 2015 performance, Harper seems physically whole this season. As for the psychological piece, that's not so clear.
On the surface, Harper appears to be holding it together. Despite suffering through a massive slump that started in mid-April and only recently showed signs of letting up, he has been cordial when talking to members of the media. He has been atypically restrained toward umpires and has yet to be tossed from a game, a sign of maturity that, if it holds, would result in his first ejection-free season since 2014. Said hitting coach Kevin Long: "He's really in a good frame of mind." That isn't to say the slump hasn't taken its toll.
"Is he frustrated? Sure," Long said. "Does he want to do better? Sure. Is this pissing him off a little bit? Yeah. What human being wouldn't it? This is what you do for a living, and you're arguably the best hitter on the planet."
Over the past few months, however, it seems as though what Harper cares most about is being the best home run hitter on the planet.
Before a May contest against the Pirates, the Nats slugger took early batting practice, then proceeded to go deep for the first time in more than two weeks. Afterward, when asked what the purpose of his early BP session was, Harper said: "Just hit some homers ... I was trying to hit the ball as far as I could." A few days later, following a two-jack game against the Phillies that included a 473-foot bomb to dead center, he weighed in with, "It's not how far. It's how many." Over Memorial Day weekend, when he went yard against Miami but finished the series with a then season-low .230 average, he rationalized it like this: "If I hit .230, and I hit 40, I'll take it any day of the week."
It's hard to tell whether Harper's homer-centric mindset is the cause of his slump or merely a byproduct of it. Long, for one, believes it's the latter. "With all the negatives that are surrounding him, why wouldn't he bring up some positives? Why does it always have to be negative negative negative negative negative negative negative negative negative, and we never talk about the good things? He wants to feel good about himself on something right now. If you're the top of the National League, you're doing something good. That's him saying, I've got to feel good about something."
That isn't the only thing Harper is doing in an attempt to feel good. On a recent off day in D.C., the face of the franchise met his hitting coach at the stadium for some extra batting practice, about 500 swings' worth. Long said it was only the second time in his career that he had a player punch in on a day off for extra reps (the other was Mark Teixeira). Over the past month, Harper has shaved his trademark beard, changed one of his walk-up songs -- he ditched Sam Hunt's "Body Like A Back Road" in favor of "Drunk On Your Love" by Brett Eldredge -- and even taken ground balls at first base with infield coach Tim Bogar. While some viewed the grounder session as a marketing ploy meant to catch the attention of a Yankees club that's loaded in the outfield (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton) but lighter at first base (Greg Bird), agent Scott Boras insisted that wasn't the case.
"You need to do things that relax you and make you feel like a baseball player," Boras said. "It's something that allows him go out and be an athlete."
Added Bogar: "Just give him something different to do. Change his mindset a little bit. Take his mind off of what's going on in his world."
What's going on in Harper's hemisphere is that his Nationals are hovering around .500 and are one of baseball's biggest disappointments so far this season. Even when they have played well, it has been more in spite of him than because of him: From May Day until Father's Day, a stretch that saw Washington go 25-15, Harper hit .197 with 50 strikeouts and 14 walks. "It does help when we're winning," Long said, "but at the end of the day, he wants to be a main cog in this. He wants to be a big contributor, and that's the part that frustrates him."
The narrative has been that Harper's frustration stems from getting pitched around so much, that because pitchers tread so lightly (41 percent of the pitches he sees are in the strike zone, lowest in MLB), he has grown impatient and has been swinging at offerings he should be taking. But that isn't necessarily the case. The truth is Harper's 28 percent chase rate is only slightly above league average and is actually down more than 2 percent from a year ago, when he looked like one of the best hitters in baseball. The bigger problem is that when Harper does swing, regardless of whether the ball is in the zone, he's catching more air than ever before.
"Is he frustrated? Sure. Does he want to do better? Sure. Is this pissing him off a little bit? Yeah. What human being wouldn't it? This is what you do for a living, and you're arguably the best hitter on the planet." Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long on Bryce Harper
"It's just a matter of not missing pitches," Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. As someone who frequently hits before or after Harper in Washington's lineup, Turner has had a front-row seat to his teammate's uncharacteristic season. "I think he would tell you that he's missing a lot of pitches this year as opposed to years past. That's the difference."
The numbers bear out Turner's theory. Entering this season, Harper had whiffed on 26.1 percent of his swings as a big leaguer, a relatively low clip for a power hitter who swings as violently as he does. This year, his miss rate has spiked to 32.9 percent, a career high and almost 7 percentage points more than last season. It's an alarming trend that suggests an increasingly all-or-nothing mentality for the former MVP.
Said one National League executive: "He's a very hard-headed guy in terms of his approach." Exactly how that approach will translate on the free-agent market is anybody's guess.
"If he doesn't rebound in the second half, his stock is decreased dramatically," the NL exec said. "He'll still get a lot of money, but not anywhere near if he had a year like he was having last year before he got hurt."
According to one AL general manager, though, Harper's struggles -- even if they persist throughout the second half -- can't be evaluated in a vacuum. "People don't look at things in one-year buckets," the GM said. "You look at things in a three- or four-year bucket because you're trying to forecast what you're buying over the course of that contract. So using one year as the driver of your analysis is problematic." Also clouding the picture is the aftershock of last winter's free-agency free fall.
Coming off his strong but injury-shortened 2017 campaign, the general consensus was that Harper, along with Orioles star Machado, was in position to break the bank and challenge Stanton's record for the richest pro sports contract ever ($325 million over 13 years). But that was before an unprecedented offseason in which the free-agent market turned colder than a White Walkers convention in Winterfell; it was a bizarro alternate reality in which Harper's current teammate Mark Reynolds -- who had 30 homers and an .839 OPS last year -- went unsigned until a week after Opening Day. With the 2018 free-agency period just around the corner, the early forecast -- at least for the Harpers and Machados of the world -- calls for Winterfell to thaw.
"The best players and the young players will still achieve those contracts," another American League GM said. "There are very few guys that are going to hit free agency like those guys, at 26 years old, with the kind of cachet and talent level they have. I don't think they'll be struggling to find a payday."
In the meantime, Harper will continue his quest to find his groove. If the past few weeks are any indication, he might have already turned the corner. Since the summer solstice, Harper has a .940 OPS, with 10 extra-base hits in 20 games. He has as many walks as whiffs (25), and has been using the whole field more. He's chasing less and making more contact.
"Not really," Harper says when asked if he has been doing anything differently the past few weeks. "Just trying to get good pitches over the plate. I've been saying it all along. If I get a pitch over the plate, I can do damage on it. If not, then I take my walks."
As he talks, he methodically cleans out his double locker. It's the Sunday before the Sunday before the Midsummer Classic, and the Nats are headed out of town for a one-week road trip. When they return, they'll find their cubbies and folding chairs inhabited by the best players in the NL. As such, gone from Harper's locker are the boxes of extra batting gloves. Gone are the five different-colored mitts he typically displays on the top shelf -- red, black, gray, white and blue. Gone is the bottle of Master Brew Kombucha.
All that remains are a pair of black Under Armour slides, a red bat, some street clothes and a small, turquoise sticky note. On it, written in black capital letters, is this message:
START FROM NOTHING.
CREATE SOMETHING WITH PURPOSE.
FIGHT YOUR WAY.
STAY TRUE TO BEING FEARLESSLY YOU.
In the week ahead, when Harper returns from the road and morphs from Nationals outfielder into National League All-Star, there's a chance that he'll get bumped to a different locker. On a seating chart filled with the biggest names in the game, there's no guarantee that he'll have his usual spot, the swanky corner unit that's conveniently situated right in the center of the room. Then again, who knows? Maybe Harper will continue to be the man in the middle.
After all, this was supposed to be his All-Star Game.